Sunday, 10 November 2013

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas – Tom Tykwer, Andy and Linda Wachowski – I saw this film without having read David Mitchell’s novel – and so was looking forward to being cheerfully bamboozled by an expansive plot, one that promised to be ambitious in its scope and narrative structure. Firstly to be able to film what is, by all accounts, a dazzlingly dexterous narrative maze- deserves credit in itself. Mitchell’s source material ranges from a diary on-board an abolition era ship, a nuclear conspiracy, a dystopian hyper consumer society, an old man incarcerated in a retirement home, a Cambridge intellectual and an eccentric composer, a string of doomed love letters and a hybrid of sci-fi, tight, white costumes and Apocalypto style tribesman…so it is a gregarious conglomerate of genre, content and tone. It was ridiculous, at times unexpectedly funny, at times inadvertently funny, but – for the most part – entertaining.

I found the greatest resistance to my enjoyment of the film lay in some of the casting decisions. Having Tom hanks and Halle Berry unrelentingly reincarnated in various roles often distracted from dramatic tension – leading instead to stifled giggles at their various odd avatars. Watching Tom Hanks play a Irish/cockney thug, who is also a provocative writer and, for some undisclosed reason, sports Craig David’s questionable facial hair…is a show stopping oddity. The problem in casting big names in these roles (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving) means that rather than  staying immersed within the, already challenging kaleidoscope of narrative, it becomes far more enticing to simply ‘spot’ the actor…and then gawp at the bizzare prosthetics/make up. Hugh Grant receives a particularly inspired mask of pensioner wrinkles and nasal exaggeration, in one of many narrative strands.

The other problem in having, at its centre, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks is that Halle Berry and Tom Hanks seem to struggle with being anything other than…Halle Berry and Tom Hanks. Regardless of hours of make up, CGI, prosthetics or numerous laughable hair decisions…both remain, pretty obstinately, themselves. That is, for Tom Hanks I find it hard to see past a fairly well meaning, ‘average joe’, everyman (although his role on-board the ship, complete with abject ginger whiskers comes closest to destabilising this), where as Halle Berry is eternally re-inventing her offensively white smile and, hollowed of all palpable character, brings a disarmingly dull neutrality to what ever character she portrays. Therefore, at the heart of the film (for me) there was a lack of character interest – Tom Hanks and Halle Berry became more and more transparently pawn-like figures, at the mercy of multiple wardrobe changes, multiple cosmic shifts and challenging narrative acrobatics. However, maybe that works? Maybe, being kind, their uninteresting persistence in being only themselves (however much make up is involved) echoes the story’s unravelling expanse of parallel lives: it has all happened before and will happen again…it is all connected…yatter yatter…). On general terms though (kindness abandoned) it seems a failing of the film to cast these two Hollywood billboards at the centre of such a complex and arching vision.

'The Hitcher' from Mighty Boosh has a cameo as Tom Hank's alter ego.

To briefly return to Halle Berry’s inhumanly alabaster dentures, the film does have a worrying tendency to presume a change in false teeth constitutes a dramatic change in character. It does not. It is just Tom Hanks – with false teeth. Still, Im being overly harsh – some of the make up/prosthetics…whatever the hell was used…is pretty impressive in its morphing capabilities. It just seems a weakness in the film when you begin fixating on artifice as opposed to emotion – at least in a story so grandly in pursuit of the conceptual and not simply the aesthetic. The clash between potentially vacuous visuals and straining philosophy really comes to light in a teeth grittingly ridiculous sequence: in a sensuous montage we move between some velvety lit, ambient sex-scene - that could be lifted from a particularly elaborate rendering of the Kama Sutra (slow motion to make tricky positions more ‘accessible’ and decadent interior décor – to assure the viewer: this no cheap pornography!), between this tasteful erotica and two grinning Cambridge intellects throwing plates and breaking china…in a china shop. All of this is then lent commentary through some vague coffee-table philosophy murmured in accompanying voice-over. At least I think it was…and if it wasn’t…well, the tone suggested something as worryingly indulgent. Some of the ideas in the film, which are genuinely interesting (as a result of a clearly bold and daring piece of literature) are hammered home a tad too much. The filmmakers achieved the really daunting Everest of balancing all of the various time periods/genres/characters with impressive competence – after which there needed to be a bit more confidence in the audience to ponder for themselves. Instead there is a lot of repetition and some needlessly clumsy excavation of themes.

The strengths of the film seemed to be primarily in the areas that echoed the Wachowski’s previous territory: dystopian enslavement and revolution. Possibly the most riveting plotline in the film revolves around a future, hyper-consumer city, in which Korean women are imprisoned in service of the insatiable consumer systems… effectively becoming identical, sexualised, automaton waitresses. Xun Zhuo plays the woman who becomes singled out as the face to lead a revolution. As it turns out (SPOILER) the legion of regimented servants are methodically slaughtered, to provide ‘protein’ for the very work force they came from. An idea not dissimilar from the liquefied human slaves in The Matrix, used as battery juice for future generations; plug-in embryos squirming in the fluids of their forefathers. And other such charmingly well thought out details of the apocalypse. Xun Zhuo, despite playing the porcelain-faced doll, seems by far the most charismatic performance (followed closely by the brooding magnetism of Ben Whishaw and the farcical eccentricities of Jim Broadbent). It is in this morbid imagining of a conveyer belt of butchery, commerce and fetishized mannequin appearances, that the film becomes most successful.

This is, without a doubt, a soaring, stumbling, ravishing and ridiculous film. Well worth seeing at the cinema. It has definitely awoken the urge to seek out the David Mitchell novel. So much is contemplated and suggested…although often (sadly) the evident wealth of material insists upon its own ambition, lending it moments of painful flatulence and patronising dialogue. There is also a problematic interpretation of an invented dialect, from the novel. What I imagine was originally an inventive crafting of language is regurgitated into a Southern slur, shared at fireside by two actors (ol Hanks n berry) who seem just as unconvinced as I did at their handling of the language. Falling somewhere between Mark Twain’s voice of Jim, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the stammer of Forest Gump and a dictionary of New Age spirituality…it makes for an unwelcome, and further, intrusion on the film’s giddy world. There is certainly no shortage of spectacle and story, and for that it advertises the book dam well. But as far as standing as a cohesive and effective film on its own terms, it’s an odd one. Just as I was beginning to forgive its various shortcomings and think…this is one exciting slab of adventure and chin stroking…the ending slaps a load of superfluous cheese on the proceedings, smothering previous success with ol grampy Hanks, looking wise and sitting by the fire – regaling an enraptured audience of bright eyed and bushy tailed great,great,great, grandchildren of whatever generational splutter is now observed…it was a fairly hideous framing device that the film would have fared better without. So, a mixed and mighty large bag: bold, beguiling and blunderingly enjoyable. 7/10

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